Nope, we're not kidding. The sacrilegious Porsche SUV was the lesser of five evils.
Porsche is slowly pulling back the curtains to celebrate the Cayenne's existence and giving us the whole story behind the controversial SUV. We say controversial because segments and brands were more clearly defined back then. Manufacturers made hatches, sedans, sports cars, off-roaders, and supercars. Volkswagen made hatches for the masses, and Porsche would sell you either a Boxster, a 911, or a 959 and then later the Carrera GT. The idea of Porsche selling an off-roader was as ridiculous as PETA opening a chain of steakhouses.
And yet it happened, and all thanks to an analysis overseen by Hans Riedel, the board member responsible for sales at the time. But the Porsche Cayenne wasn't always destined to be an off-roader, and it could've been something far more mundane.
"It was apparent that the sports car had its limits on the market," recalls Anton Hunger, head of communications for former Chairman of the Executive Board Wendelin Wiedeking. "The sales division had clearly demonstrated this using market research. In the long run, Porsche would have ended up on a downward slope again."
In summary, Porsche was hemorrhaging money, even following the successful introduction of Porsche's mid-engined drop-top.
It needed a new vehicle and the analysis came back with five possibilities but only two would be approved for final consideration: a premium minivan or a luxury SUV. Can you even begin to imagine a Porsche Minivan?
Mercifully, the minivan idea was struck down by the US, the biggest Porsche market. "At the time in America, minivans were especially popular among families with many children and low incomes," Hunger recounts. "But large SUVs were doing well across all income levels even back then."
After settling on an SUV, Porsche needed a partner. Porsche knew Mercedes-Benz was working on the first M-Class and it wasn't against the idea of working with Porsche.
"At that stage, we envisioned the Porsche SUV as a high-performance offshoot of the Mercedes with its own exterior design, a lot of M-Class technology, but engines and chassis components from us," said Klaus-Gerhard Wolpert, VP of the original Cayenne product line from 1998 to 2010.
According to Porsche, this particular venture failed due to differing ideas about the two companies' economic relationship. We think Porsche is being kind here. The first M-Class, assembled in Alabama, was poorly made and introduced just as Mercedes-Benz was hitting a quality slump.
So Porsche went shopping for another partner and found Volkswagen. At the time VW was also looking at introducing premium products like the Touareg and the doomed Phaeton. Porsche was not yet part of the VW Group but Ferdinand Piech was more than happy to design the Touareg in partnership with Porsche.
"Porsche presented the concept to Volkswagen, and Ferdinand Piëch decided that they could also use a car like this," said Wolpert. Porsche and VW decided to team up and the partnership was made public in 1998. Porsche was put in charge of development, while VW would handle production; the perfect split of responsibilities.
While the Touareg and the Cayenne shared multiple components, the two manufacturers went their own ways at just the right time. Porsche would use its engines and take care of the chassis tuning.
The tricky question was what the Cayenne should be. Considering Porsche was widely renowned for building near-perfect road cars, would these characteristics be carried over to its SUV? And if so, how would it impact the off-road ability.
Like so many times before and since Porsche set itself an impossible task. "For us it was clear that if we made an off-road vehicle, then its performance must also be absolutely compelling off-road," said Hunger. Porsche decided to hit both targets, as they wanted Cayenne to provide a thrilling driving experience, whatever surface it was driving on.
"I instructed all my division managers to turn in their Porsche company cars. Instead, we purchased several different SUVs, such as the BMW X5, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Mercedes M-Class. Colleagues were to drive these models daily, and every four weeks, we swapped them around," said Wolpert. This allowed them to identify good and bad elements. After spending four weeks in these cars, they knew what they wanted to keep for the Cayenne but, more crucially, what to throw in the bin.
The result spoke for itself. On the road, the Cayenne felt oddly similar to a German sports saloon with a well-sorted chassis. Off-road, it was a beast, courtesy of low-range gearing and locking differentials that could compete with a Land Cruiser. Somehow, Porsche managed to make two polar opposite sides of the automotive segment work harmoniously. It was a stunning feat of engineering, though later Cayennes would eventually become more road-biased.
Though Porsche loyalists groaned, the Cayennes sales figures saved the company. Porsche sold 10,000 units more per year than anticipated, and to this day, the Cayenne remains the most popular Porsche.